Beyond Le Mystère des Voix: the Bulgarian Alternative Music Scene

 

Trying to describe the Bulgarian alternative music scene is quite the task. In terms of quality there is more and more exciting stuff coming out, but pretty much every act is alone for itself, both in the way it operates and how it fits. Talking about an actual musical community is still wishful, as most music projects (both in the sense of performing or promoting music) have a short life, usually no more than five years of activity, before evaporating. Despite this, there have been steps taken in the right direction.

Because of the political climate and censorship in Bulgaria up until 1989, as well as the lack of proper music distribution and radio exposure (which is still an issue), the Bulgarian music scene has traditionally been a few years behind international trends. 80’s new wave/post-punk aesthetics were still being explored by the end of the decade and well into the 90’s, for example. Same goes for punk itself. Even now, for example, contemporary radio-friendly indie acts are more connected to the sound of the mid-to-late 00’s than what is done in the vintage-obsessed present.

It’s also hard to encompass the scene because of the lack of any truly landmark releases: you may stumble across scattered singles, collaborations and EPs, but actually very few new LPs. Certain periods, such as the 00’s, are badly documented. The darkwave and post-punk bands of the 80’s and the early 90’s are looked upon fondly – while the same audiences would rarely know the new stuff. As you can guess, the almost complete lack of music criticism and music blogs creates a certain information hole between the audiences (often the crowd around a particular club or a band might be barely aware of what is going on in the club 100 metres away). At least, we’re good at playing with the myth of individualism.

Perhaps it doesn’t come as a huge surprise that with the lack of a stable mainstream or a stable underground, what the local scene is good at is mainly the more experimental genres.

So here are some contemporary Bulgarian artists to check out which are also a good example of collaborative thinking and making the label “scene” not sound that wishful:

Kink

In the realm of electronic music, KINK needs no introduction. He’s a three-time top fiver in Resident Advisor’s Top Live Acts list and he topped the chart in 2016 (with artists like Moderat and in the top 10). Also worth exploring are the singles by his collaborator Rachel Row – and here’s one with a great Sofia view.

Ivan Shopov

Sometimes it’s hard to keep up with all the projects that Shopov is involved in – from dubstep to drone. The most recent one is the collaborative ambient album Controlled Perception. He is also known for the folklore-inspired Бalkansky. Exploring his discography is a good way to introduce yourself to some of the most creative local artists – for example Saturated Pixel‘s debut EP ‘Photons’, which is released on Shopov’s label.

Smallman

One of the latest collaborations of Ivan Shopov is actually with the Bulgarian alternative metal band Smallman, known for their usage of Bulgarian folklore elements combined with a (rare for the scene) attention to visual aesthetics and cover art. Their collaborative EP, partly written on the Rhodope mountains, is out now. You’re also advised to check Smallman’s 2014 LP Envision.

Voyvoda

Voyvoda is another project which deals with folklore music but in a very different, much darker way, often filled with numerous historical references. It’s also worth mentioning that experiencing the band through studio recordings and seeing them live is like listening to two very different bands.

Nasekomix

Something more jazzy without being jazz and more trip-hop-ish without being any of that. They have two LP’s (Adam’s Bushed and Eva’s Deep and Giants and Dwarves) and soundtrack work on two of the major Bulgarian movies in recent years – ‘Eastern Plays’ and ‘Losers’. Also worth checking out is Nasekomix’s Andronia Popova’s album with long-standing Bulgarian duo Bluba Lu, World Melancholy.

Doesn’t Frogs

Doesn’t Frogs filled the missing gap of the contemporary post punk band with shoegaze influences. Their debut EP is quite promising and another LP is coming out later this year. Also worth checking out are The Black Swells, who are 2/3 Doesn’t Frogs and the more psychedelic orientated Comasummer.

Evitceles

Evitceles calls his music “underwater techno” and it’s a fitting description as he continues to delve deeper into a territory where minimal techno and ambient meet. A new track just went online.

Leaver

Leaver’s debut LP ‘Head First’ might become your great introduction to Bulgaria’s ambient/drone scene. Everything released by Amek is worth checking out. You might stumble upon some treasures.

Nocktern

A surprising mixture of jazz, fusion, trip-hop and classic by musician and visual artist Stoimen Stoyanov, known for his work with some very different (and harder) sounding bands such as the hardcore collective Them Frequencies.

Babyface Clan/Les Animaux Sauvages

Babyface Clan is a nearly 20 year old band which was one of the very first here to sing in English and along with that – to display a certain English-ness in their image, due to vocalist Nasso Ruskov’s London background. Les Animaux Sauvages is an offshoot electro-pop side project featuring two of the band’s members.

Further listening:

Also worth checking out are contemporary hip-hop artists such as Zluch, Gena and Grigovor and Strugare.

If you’re curious about more radio-friendly indie pop music, you might want to check Stop The Schizo, Dead Man’s Hat and Hayes&Y.

For more folklore-influenced projects head to Kayno Yesno Slonce, Oratnitza and Ambient Folklore.

If you’re into the harder stuff, check the local hardcore prides Expectations and A-Moral.

Honorable mention:
Kan Wakan

It’s a far stretch to call Kan Wakan a Bulgarian act. Sofia-born multi-instrumentalist and producer Gueorgui Linev’s project is based in L.A and he has lived in the USA for most of his life. However, the upcoming triple (yes, triple) album Phantasmagoria is partly recorded in Bulgaria with local musicians and is expected to feature some folkloric influences. The album is out on 19th May.